The Western media has tended to portray it as armoured tanks crushing innocence; the Chinese media prefers the Western propaganda plot theme. But whether one calls the events in Tiananmen Square on June 4 a 'massacre' or an 'incident' it is hard, seven years on, to know what really happened on that dark night in Beijing when the tanks rolled in. An American documentary being screened at the Arts Centre next week goes some way to explain some of the issues behind the student uprising and the government crackdown. It is a documentary that has already won high acclaim after showings at many international film festivals over the past year. It was premiered in the territory in March at the Hong Kong International Film Festival. Like the four screenings at the Arts Centre this month, tickets sold out almost immediately. That Gate of Heavenly Peace (Tiananmen) should be controversial is not surprising: that it is controversial among both dissidents and government officials is more interesting, and suggests a welcome balance of reporting. The marathon three-hour film (and that is after extensive editing) tells the history of the great square in the centre of China's capital. A square capable of holding 1.5 million people. It was where students welcomed a new patriotic era with the May 4 movement in 1919, where the People's Republic of China was symbolically established by Mao Zedong, and where the crowds, dubbed 'counter-revolutionaries' for mourning the death of Premier Zhou Enlai, clashed with police in 1976. The documentary was made by American director Carma Hinton and her husband Richard Gordon through their Long Bow Group. Hinton was born in China in 1949, and she lived in Beijing until 1971 with her mother, who worked at the Foreign Language Institute. She was initially inspired to make the documentary by what she saw as the shortcomings in the Western media's reports of the events, which she watched on her TV set in Boston. She said she found 'no Chinese context' in the coverage; that it was one-sided. 'So I decided to make a documentary for those Chinese voices which are rarely heard.' It took five years. 'We almost had to start our research from scratch,' Hinton said. 'There were few resources we could absolutely rely on.' They interviewed several of the former student leaders, as well as political observers, and - with use of archive material - have shed new light on the events leading up to, and following June 4 1989. It is still portrayed to some extent as a clash of might versus ideals, but there is a real attempt to see what was happening in the student camp throughout the critical months leading up to the showdown. There were 14 interviewees, including students Wuer Kaixi and Feng Shengde, teachers Liu Xiaobo and Liang Xiaoyen, worker Han Dongfang, and a victim's mother Ding Zilin. The student movement is revealed to have been muddled and unrealistic at times; there are particularly moving scenes where the leaders face what they see as an impossible situation, yet are unable to turn back. Hinton talked to student leader Wang Dan, before he was arrested a second time. He calmly recalled the 'feeling of emptiness' after the incident, and revealed his thoughts about continuing the movement in the university campus while fighting was raging. He felt he should have made a greater effort to debate with other student leaders on deciding whether to leave the square or stay during the imposition of martial law. He said: 'I think we should have acted more responsibly.' One voice that was not heard, except on old footage, was Chai Ling. She was one of the most charismatic and impassioned leaders of the democracy movement. In the documentary, Chai appears in the videotaped interview she gave to an American journalist Philip Cunningham on May 28, 1989. In the extraordinary footage, Chai has tears in her eyes as she reflects with very emotional language on the group's struggles, accuses the government of merciless ignorance, and criticises the movement as 'immature'. 'The students themselves lack the developed sense of democracy. To be honest, from the day I called for a hunger strike, I knew we would not get any results,' she said. 'I am making an effort to present an image, to show that we're striking for victory, but deep down I knew it was all futile . . . 'How can I tell them, what we are actually hoping for is bloodshed . . . only when the Square was awash with blood will the people of China open their eyes, only then we will be united. 'How can I explain to them . . . They are still such young children.' She also tells of how she insisted on the students not giving up the Square, because she would not let the movement 'collapse on its own' and she 'would not fail her fellow students'. Hinton said she did not believe Chai was suggesting to end the movement with violence. However, based on their research, it did seem that the leaders were preparing for bloodshed. 'I thought the weaknesses of the students were very human. They were politically inexperienced and they believed that changes could be obtained quickly. 'But I am more sympathetic to those young people who were demanding changes even when they did not have power to control their own lives.' The film is about individuals struggling to make choices when facing dilemmas, not about absolute heroes and absolute villains, which is apparently what the international media seems to want, Hinton said. 'We have to see things in complex terms, we cannot be too simplistic.' The documentary was creating controversies among the Chinese dissidents even before it was made. Hinton said they had interpreted the film 'as if it were a plot from the enemy camp'. 'They accused the film without seeing it nor talking to me . . . they had only read reports about it.' When the film was premiered at the New York Film Festival in September 1995, it also aroused a strong reaction from Beijing, which sent instructions to the film festival organisers not to show the film. Then, in retaliation for the organisers' refusal to co-operate, Beijing requested top Chinese director Zhang Yimou to stay away from New York.